This event was held in the building which, during the 1920s and ’30s, housed The Comintern, or Communist International–imagine the ghosts prowling there in the night! It is now part of the campus of the Russian State Social University, a relatively new and large institution, with a strong social conservative as its President.

One of the lives claimed in the Gulag of the 1930’s was that of Alexander Chayanov. An agricultural economist of unusual insight, Chayanov did most of his work here in Moscow and was well on his way to constructing a compelling theory of what he called the “natural family economy.” Alas, his intellectual project was cut short by imprisonment and eventual death. All the same, he left behind a body of work that—I argue—still illuminates the nature of a true family-centered economy. Moreover, I contend that family reconstruction and demographic renewal depend on recovering some aspects of Chayanov’s idea of the natural family economy.

Alexander Chayanov studied a Russian agrarian order which, as late as 1914, still counted about 85 percent of the population on peasant or family farms. Where Communist and Liberal Capitalist theorists of the era agreed that such small-scale agriculture was surely and properly doomed in the modern industrial era, Chayanov dissented. He insisted that history was not necessarily moving toward pure capitalism or total communism, that the peasantry need not disappear, and that “the peasant family labor farm” could “remain the same, always changing in particular features and adapting to the circumstances surrounding the national economy.”[i]

Chayanov made the compelling argument that the true nature of the family farm economy could not even be understood by using the categories of either Marxist or Manchester Liberal analysis. Peasant farms, for example, rarely applied the category of wages to their operation, and had little use as well for conventional understandings of profit, capital accumulation, interest, or land rent. These facts alone led Chayanov and his colleagues in Moscow’s “Organization and Production School” to develop a new system of accounting, one suited to peasant farm inputs and outputs.

More broadly, Chayanov’s theories provide—in historian Teodor Shanin’s words—a “conceptual rearmament” of the micro-economy of the family farm.[ii] Among his key propositions, Chayanov stresses that human biology, not “class conflict” or “marginal utility,” drives the peasant economy. Economic development, in his words, rests on “demographic differentiation which depends [in turn] on biological family growth.” By family, Chayanov means “the purely biological concept of the married couple, living together with their [children] and aged representation of the older generation.”[iii] His emphasis on a farm’s sexual division of labor also “turns marriage into a necessary condition of fully-fledged peasantship.”[iv] Moreover, Chayanov’s “natural family economy” assumes a robust fertility. Indeed, his whole theory rests on what economist Daniel Thorner calls “the natural history” of a family, as rural couples marry, bear an average of nine children, settle those children on land, and then retire.[v] As economic historian Mark Harrison summarizes:

Peasant economy reproduces itself through the family. The family is the progenitor of the family life-cycle and of population growth. It is the owner of property. As such, it expresses the fact that the aim of production is household consumption, not feudal rent or bourgeois profit.[vi]

Chayanov also emphasizes that the family itself is a “work unit,” with family members fundamentally bonded to each other: husband and wife need each other to survive and prosper; and they, in turn, need children to prosper and survive. As Chayanov puts it, “peasant farms are structured to conform to the optimal degree [which mobilizes] the family labor force.”[vii] His central point is simple: shared labor in a common enterprise binds the family together.

All this, though, took place a century ago. An agriculture built on family-farming appears to be gone. The Russian and Ukrainian peasantries were decimated by the collectivization and “de-kulakization” drives of the early 1930’s. Curiously, the American family-farming sector was also decimated, albeit later—after 1940—and without physical violence. All the same, a shift in government policy was involved, and the end result was identical: industrialized agriculture and the near-disappearance of the small family farm.[viii]

And yet, there are broader lessons in family- and population-policy to be found within the theory of Alexander Chayanov. Most importantly, even in our day, strong families and large families—those with many children—are usually families that still claim a real home economy: not just one of consumption, but one of production as well. A living American writer very  much in sympathy with the spirit of Alexander Chayanov is Wendell Berry. Like Professor Anatoly Antonov a poet—as well as a novelist and essayist—Wendell Berry insists that any hope for rebuilding a nation’s life on the principles of freedom and family depends on bringing functions—real functions—back into the family home. Berry writes: “We are going to have to gather up the fragments of knowledge and responsibility” that have been turned over to governments and corporations during the 20th Century and “put those fragments back together again in our own minds and in our families and households and neighborhoods.”[ix]

The great Russian-American sociologist Pitirim Sorokin himself had lamented the “loss of function” as both a central cause and symptom of family decline. As he wrote in The Crisis of Our Age: “In the past the family was the foremost educational agency for the young. Some hundred years ago it was well-nigh the sole educator for a vast proportion of the younger generation. At the present time its educational functions have shrunk enormously…. In these respects the family has forfeited the greater part of its former prerogatives.” Sorokin pointed as well to the loss of religious, recreational, and subsistence functions. He concluded: “Now families are small, and their members are soon scattered…. The result is that the family home turns into a mere ‘overnight parking place.’”[x]

The diagnoses of familial decay offered by Alexander Chayanov, Wendell Berry, and Pitirim Sorokin are quite similar. Do they point to a common response? The answer, I believe, is yes: Simply put, societies need to recover and renew the natural family economy; societies need to chart a return of certain economic functions—broadly understood—to the home. What might this mean? In the spirit particularly of Chayanov, allow me to offer specifics, ranging from the simple and easily forgotten to the, perhaps, surprising:

–First and most simply: new mothers should breastfeed their babies. Wendell Berry calls this the “last form of home production,” and one that women have wisely refused to surrender.[xi] Breastfeeding also is in harmony with natural maternal hormones and instincts and encourages additional births.

–Second, all families should aim at some level of symbolic, home-based agriculture. A family vegetable garden; simple animal husbandry; even vegetables grown on an apartment balcony: these become centers of shared family work, symbolize a family commitment to provisioning, and so contribute to family solidarity and autonomy.

–Third, governments should protect small-scale, communitarian agriculture. In his new book, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?, British political scientist Eric Kaufmann answers “yes.” He points to religiously-grounded farm communities such as the Old Order Amish and Hutterites in North America and the Laestadian Lutherans of Finland as “the future of the [human] race.” With Total Fertility Rates of 5.0 to 9.0, these groups are growing at near-explosive rates. The Amish in America, for example, counted only 5000 members in 1900; in 2011, this number approaches 300,000. Almost all this gain has come from natural growth, and it continues into the 21st Century, while the rest of the developed world shrinks.[xii] Compounded over another four generations, the change becomes revolutionary. Governments cannot order up such behavior; but they can welcome, favor, and protect such groups.

–Fourth, governments should protect and encourage home schools. The most unexpected and remarkable populist movement in America during the last three decades has been the rapid growth of home schools: counting less than 50,000 students in 1980, the number approaches 3 million today. Viewed historically, these post-modern families have—in effect—responded to Sorokin’s lament and have brought the critical education function back home. Home-schooled children in America, on balance, exceed their public- and private-school counterparts in terms of achievement and creativity. Relative to family life, virtually all home-schooled students are in married couple homes. And there is a strong, positive fertility effect: 62 percent of these families have three or more children, compared to only 20 percent nationwide; and over a third have four or more children, compared to a mere 6 percent of all households.[xiii]

–Fifth, governments should favor family-owned micro-enterprises. The most socially disruptive effect of the industrial revolution was the way it severed the place where adults work from the place where adults live. Most of our current family questions—from loud disputes over gender roles to child care to low fertility—derive from this great disruption. Remarkably, the 21st Century has been blessed by technologies that can help to restore the bond between workplace and home: notably the home computer and the internet. Accordingly, tax systems should favor new, home-based, family micro-enterprises. Financial bodies should mobilize capital, at favorable rates, for these family entities. State regulations should protect these family businesses from the depredations and intrigues of the big corporations.

–And sixth, government policy should encourage land and home ownership among young married couples with children, achieved through land grants and favorable mortgage terms.

–And seventh, tax policy should favor the mother-at-home and families with many children. The mother in the home is a necessary component of a full “natural family economy.” “Income splitting” by married couples within a progressive income tax structure should be the rule. Full-time mothers should also receive generous credits toward public pension plans, with their benefits raised according to number of children. Couples with dependent children should receive substantial income tax deductions and/or credits according to family size. At middle income levels, those with three or more children should pay no income tax at all. The American record suggests that such policies predictably have a strong pro-natalist effect.[xiv]

Overall, the key corrolations are clear: functional families are strong and large; strong and large families are function-rich. Concerned governments… take notice!





[i] A.V. Chayanov, Peasant Farm Organization (Moscow: The Cooperative Publishing House, 1925): 42.

[ii] Teodor Shanin, The Awkward Class: Political Sociology of Peasantry in a Developing Society: Russia 1910-1925 (Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1972): 101.

[iii] Chayanov, Peasant Farm Organization, 257, 54.

[iv] Noted in: Teodor Shanin, “The Nature and Logic of the Peasant Economy 1: A Generalization,” Journal of Peasant Studies 1 (Oct. 1973): 68.

[v] Daniel Thorner, “Chayanov’s Concept of Peasant Economy,” in A.V. Chayanov, The Theory of Peasant Economy (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1986): xvii.

[vi] Mark Harrison, “The Peasant Mode of Production in the Work of A.V. Chayanov,” Journal of Peasant Studies 4 (July 1977): 330.

[vii] Chayanov, Peasant Farm Organization, 5-7, 92.

[viii] Only recently has the small-farm sector begun to revive in the United States. See: Allan Carlson, “Agrarianism Reborn: On the Curious Return of the Small Family Farm,” Intercollegiate Review 42 (Spring 2008): 13-23.

[ix] Wendell Berry, A Continuous Harmony: Essays, Cultural and Agricultural (San Diego, CA and New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972, 1970): 79, 82.

[x] Pitirim Sorokin, The Crisis of Our Age (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1941).

[xi] Wendell Berry: The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (New York: Avon, 1977): 115.

[xii] Eric Kaufmann, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? Demography and Politics in the Twenty-first Century (London: Profile Books, 2010): 35-39.

[xiii] Lawrence M. Rudner, “Scholastic Achievement and Demographic Characteristics of Home School Students in 1998,” Education Policy Analysis Archives 7 (23 March 1999): 7-8, 12.

[xiv] Leslie Wittington, “Taxes and the Family: The Impact of the Tax Exemption for Dependents on Marital Fertility,” Demography 29 (May 1992): 220-21; and L.A. Wittington, J. Alan, and H.E. Peters, “Fertility and the Personal Exemption: Implicit Pronatalist Policy in the United States,” The American Economic Review 80 (June 1990): 545-56.


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  1. Excellent program. American agriculture went through its own collectivization program under Earl Butz’s “get big or get out” policies in the Eisenhower administration.

  2. I just spent a week in Fairmont, West Virginia with my church youth group working on the homes of several elderly women in a dilapidated neighborhood. The home I personally worked on belonged to a delightful 86 year old black woman. Her home was immaculate and well maintained — this despite having worked most of her life as a janitor at a local bank and raising several children. She is now a great grandmother several times over. She was born in the neighborhood into a home of nine children. Her father built an 11 room house and they raised all their own food. She went on to marry one of the first college educated black men in West Virginia — a man who was later recognized by Eleanor Roosevelt for his philanthropic work. Her died 5 years ago at the age of 104. Her name is Mrs. Fox and she is a human time capsule. She’s also spiritually wealthy, and a font of wisdom. She is a living testimony to the truths you outline in this wonderful piece. She is saddened by intellectual, moral, and spiritual poverty of her grandchildren and great grandchildren. She admitted having more in common with us — mostly white Presbyterians from Connecticut — than with her own descendants. (Most kids in our youth group come from large families — 4 children on average — some families in our youth group have as many as 8 children.) Tis a pity what America has done in the name of social welfare — we’ve placed the misanthropists in charge of family policy and we wonder why we’re miserable. Mrs. Fox grew up poor, but in a family that was self-suffient, proud, spiritually rich, and happy. Now her descendants are just poor. I guess some people consider that progress.

  3. To “Demographer”:

    Actually, I am completely serious. The spectre of depopulation in the post-modern era will not be countered by conventional, “modern” thinking. The 20th Century Agrarians– Americans and East Europeans alike– have much to teach us.

  4. Indeed. All today who want to solve our problems must remember the source of our historic traditions. They did not originate in a factory, or a shopping mall. They originated in fields and homes.

  5. While I find your article to be interesting; I can’t help but wonder you saw fit not to mention ‘ I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition ‘? Perhaps it was because of the Russian tilt to show a differing opinion from another country I’m not sure. Either way it would be nice to re-introduce agrarianism to a world that has over-industrialized itself to the point of ever-escalating events that they are unable to find a grip on. Events such as the Fukishima nuclear disaster, reliance upon centralized food distribution which is over-stretched to the point of causing starvation even though food supply is ample. These events can be natural, economical, etc.. but when people can’t get the truth to take action and evacuate and begin the process of cleaning up nuclear disasters or when people though food exists can’t afford it–these are prime examples of why agrarianism needs a resurgence so that rather then helping to create mega-cities we take a step back and analyze what will be better for ourselves and our families over-time. I do hope that you continue on with these examples of agrarianism & wish you the best of luck.

    God Bless!

  6. Re: And sixth, government policy should encourage land and home ownership among young married couples with children, achieved through land grants and favorable mortgage terms.

    Didn’t we just get into a lot of trouble due (in some small part at least) to the government seeking to make home ownership more general than economic factors could support? And really, there’s nothing disgraceful or dishonorable about renting as opposed to owning.

  7. I think it is a mistake to dismiss the population issue as quickly as Mr. Carlson does here (I also noticed Mr. Medaille did much the same in his latest article).

    First, while it’s possible to make some general assumptions about the direction of overall population growth in the short to intermediate future, anything beyond this time frame is mere conjecture. I’m not even certain these short-term guesses are useful or accurate. After all, there is some evidence that suggests birth rates in most of the western world have actually climbed above the level of replacement in recent years. The American Conservative ran an article late last year in which this trend was discussed, and a country by country breakdown of the numbers was presented. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find the article now.

    Second, even if the overall population does decline in the coming decades, there’s still the possibility that this smaller population could be too large. This seems especially likely if we consider the fact that the rapid population growth of the past seventy years would not have occurred were it not for cheap natural resources. Since we now seem to be reaching the worldwide peak of these resources, at exactly the same time population is reaching an all time high, it’s possible that shortages and total depletion are possible. If this occurs, a declining population would not only be necessary but natural. Furthermore, as Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson have repeatedly pointed out, we haven’t taken very good care of the one resource that we must have to sustain life–productive soil. If our soil is in such poor shape that the only way to make it productive is through the application of synthetic fertilizers made from the aforementioned scarce resources, then the only option is for the population to shrink.

    Finally, the Amish and Mennonite communities are perhaps not the best example to suggest that larger families are desirable given the current state of world affairs. As someone who knows a number of Amish families–mainly in Ohio– I have heard first hand accounts of the difficulties these families are currently experiencing. Farm land is so expensive that many of the children cannot farm, and must seek outside work, which then destroys the traditional family dynamic. Additionally, many families and communities are being torn asunder as the younger people move away to new settlements, often in other states, where land is available and cheaper.

    Please don’t take my comments as a wholesale rejection of the main argument presented in either this, or Mr. Medailles article, for that was not my intention. Rather, I just thought the population issue was summarily dismissed without a proper hearing.

  8. Robert:

    If our soil is in such poor shape that the only way to make it productive is through the application of synthetic fertilizers made from the aforementioned scarce resources, then the only option is for the population to shrink.

    Good thoughts. But there are ways to rebuild topsoil. We just need to do it. Whether there is “enough time” is impossible to calculate; nevertheless, we should try.

    Otherwise, it seems probable that changes in lifestyle will be necessary; however, they should happen organically as prior changes to our local economies develop rather than by edict from on high.

  9. Albert,

    You quite correct in suggesting there are ways to improve soil quality. Unfortunately, all of the ones I know of which don’t require large inputs of synthetic substances are extremely long-term solutions. It will take three to four centuries to recreate the amount of topsoil that has washed down the Mississippi watershed in the past seventy years.

  10. But not for illiteracy, and the chart shows that the countries with the highest fertility rates have the lowest rates of female literacy.

  11. Illiteracy may be an evil, but I am afraid it is surely a lesser evil than the moral corruption that accompanies the modern and the postmodern.

  12. The concern about girls, school, and literacy seems to be taking our discussion astray. I’ve read that national literacy rates peaked in the 1800’s, so modern government run schools have actually hurt literacy, not helped it. For everyone.

    I suspect the big problem about dropping out of school, being semi-literate, and high fertility rates is more an urban inner city problem than an agrarian one. At least within the construct of a western culture.

  13. The best thing going for my generation (I was born in ’83) are folks like my parents and the Carlsons rediscovering or pioneering 1) breastfeeding 2) homeschooling 3) having big families, with mom at home. I never realized how normal I consider these “lifestyles” until I made friends who were terrified or very discouraged by nursing and home schooling. They have had to learn everything themselves, whereas I have had 28 years of home education (in the very broadest sense), without really appreciating how it prepared me for real life.

    So to those feeling a little too self-consciously “crunchy” and “alternative” because of their family- and child-centered life choices, know your kids will lose the self-consciousness (or self-righteousness) and probably consider nursing and home schooling, gardening and procreation as just what Christian married people do. That’s a good thing.

    (Thanks to mom and dad, the Carlsons, and all those other awesome parents in my hometown who have paved the way.)

  14. I really don’t get the preoccupation with farming* by some people here. If we’re talking about a “family-centered economy” wouldn’t an economy with lots of family owned and operated small businesses in towns and cities do just as well toward that goal? Plus the problem is not that women are working outside the home, the problem is that either parent must work away from home: it’s just as problematic for the father to do so for stable family life as it is for the mother. Ideally people should spend their 20s in some sort of apprenticeship and then marry and set up shop together, with older children also lending a hand eventually (one child will eventually inherit; the others will need to go the apprenticeship route). That’s also a very traditional pattern, though articles like this seem to be unaware of it in favor of suggesting everyone just become peasants again.
    Well, the Middle Ages are not coming back. I am not sure we could even support a model of the sort I am arguing, but I think it has much more of a chance than herding everyone back onto the land like some kinder gentler version of old Pol Pot.

    * I am an avid gardener; my whole family was. But I am under no illusion that I could or should support myself thereby.

  15. My above post is on response to Hopkins. This is in response to Jon F

    People are preoccupied with farming because it works, it’s low tech, and it has been done before on a mass scale. Carlson I believe has discussed the use of apprenticeships, but he is a Historian by profession, and farming is the main point of reference. I must admit I am not very imaginative, and question the potential for reform in a Modern society. Agriculture is the only thing I can really imagine.

  16. I have trouble seeing agriculture as a come-back for employment. That train left the station well over a century ago. Given today’s technology the one possibility I can see for a return to a more family-friendly economic model woul be the family business model, one that allows the family to work together as a unit. There’s a lot of hurdles to that becoming more general I admit, but far less than there would be with a return to mass agriculture.

  17. I would like to see a way to share the articles with others, I like to be able to post to my facebook page or email to others, perhaps there is a way to do this but I haven’t found it some blogs have a share link with email and facebook options

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